No Wonder We Feel Foreign

Right in the middle of Guy Fawkes season, I have just been rummaging in the further reaches of Westminster procedures and so appalled by what I keep coming up with that I increasingly believe Guy’s had a bum deal down the years. Perhaps I should regard it as a blessing that, post-Martin, the Speaker no longer wears breeches and a wig. But the extent to which obfuscating flummery still dominates our ‘mother of all parliaments’ (I mean that more in the Saddam Hussein sense) is quite astonishing.

Example 1. The decisions on bills are still recorded in Norman French. In the 21st century, we are still governed by laws that are not simple ‘passed’ but “soit baillé aux communes” and “A ceste Bille les Seigneurs sont assentus” and “La Reyne le veult.” All three are required to make it law. This thousand-year-old thing might pull in tourists for Changing of the Guard or Beefeating about the Tower…but it’s no way to run a railroad.

Example 2. You are encouraged, especially when you have a beef that your minister MP is restricted as to what they may criticise and/or question, to contact a Lord. But you are enjoined to do so in one of the eleven different correct addresses that corresponds to the rank of a Marquess or Archbishop or whatever. Not having archbishops in my country, I am at a loss to discern their relevance to modern politics there.

Example 3. Snuff is provided, at public expense, for Members and Officers of the House. It is kept at the doorkeepers’ box at the entrance to the Chamber. Yet smoking has been banned in the Chamber and in committees since 1693. As our American cousins like to say: go figure.

Example 4. Each sitting of the House begins with prayers, for which Members stand, facing the wall behind them.  This practice is attributed to the difficulty Members would once have faced of kneeling to pray whilst wearing a sword(!) Members may leave cards on seats to indicate that they intend to attend  prayers (and so secure seats for the remainder of the sitting). This used to be done with top hats (on the assumption that a gentleman would not leave the building without his hat) until an Irish MP cheated by bringing two hats to Parliament.

Example 5.  Alfred Kinnear MP summed up (in 1900) the niceties of wearing a hat:-

“At all times remove your hat on entering the House, and put it on upon taking your seat; and remove it again on rising for whatever purpose.  If the MP asks a question he will stand, and with his hat off; and he may receive the answer of the Minister seated and with his hat on.  If on a division he should have to challenge the ruling of the chair, he will sit and put his hat on.  If he wishes to address the Speaker on a point of order not connected with a division, he will do so standing with his hat off.  When he leaves the House to participate in a division he will take his hat off, but will vote with it on.”

Got that? Pardon me while I am temporarily discommoded with nausea.

For those of you who wish to learn more, feel free to contact the nice people manning any one of the four official sources listed below. For myself, repealing the control this pile of superannuated Heath-Robinson eccentricities has over my country can’t come soon enough.

  • House of Commons Information Office
  • House of Commons
  • London SW1A 2TT
  • Phone 020 7219 4272
  • Fax 020 7219 5839
  • House of Lords Information Office
  • House of Lords
  • London SW1A 0PW
  • Phone 020 7219 3107
  • Fax 020 7219 0620
  • Parliamentary Education Service
  • House of Commons
  • London SW1A 2TT
  • Phone 020 7219 2105
  • Fax 020 7219 0818
  • Parliamentary Archives
  • House of Lords
  • London SW1A 0PW
  • Phone 020 7219 3074
  • Fax 020 7219 2570

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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